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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Steven Spielberg: Cult Movie Maker

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

If there's one thing that has chapped the hide of even the most devoted DVD fan, it's how very long it has taken to get the complete works of some of the most celebrated filmmakers out on the format. Unless your favorite director has only been working in the business for about a decade or so, odds are very good that you have some holes in your collection you'd like patched. Martin Scorsese fans are still waiting on New York, New York, although MGM is primed to fill that hole shortly. MGM will also be plugging the Wild at Heart gap in everyone's David Lynch collection but we'll still be waiting for season two of Twin Peaks or, for that matter, a Lost Highway disc that's worth buying. Even relative junior camper Steven Soderbergh doesn't have his complete curriculum vitae out on DVD (where's my King of the Hill disc, people?). But if your favorite filmmaker is Steven Spielberg, you can finally complete your library with Universal's release of the long-awaited, long-delayed Duel and The Sugarland Express. True completists can even go nuts with the first sets devoted to Columbo and Night Gallery, although I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for The Psychiatrist or The Name of the Game.

Since I've already incurred the wrath of Spielberg devotees everywhere by not completely embracing The Color Purple and Schindler's List and trashing A.I. outright, The Bits crew obviously felt I had nothing left to lose if I was assigned Spielberg's first two films to review. Makes sense. But what are they doing here in a column supposedly devoted to fringe movies? Well, if you can use the term "cult movie" to describe anything directed by the most powerful and popular filmmaker in Hollywood, it would be these two films. And while I am sorry to disappoint those of you who have come to enjoy sending me angry e-mails after a new Spielberg review is posted, believe it or not, I actually like both of these movies.

Back in the early 70's, Steven Spielberg was a very ambitious, very young journeyman TV director hungry to make the jump into feature films. He found that stepping stone when his attention was drawn to a short story by celebrated Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson in the pages of Playboy magazine about a man terrorized on the highway by a menacing tanker truck. Spielberg learned that the story was due to be turned into an ABC Movie of the Week and he went after landing the assignment with his usual zeal. His TV work was strong enough to land him what was, in all honesty, probably not the most coveted gig in Hollywood but still one that, considering his youth, he was not likely to get. The result was Duel. The TV-movie was a big commercial hit for ABC and strong enough to warrant a theatrical run overseas after Spielberg went back and added a bit to its running time.

Duel: Collector's Edition

Duel: Collector's Edition

In many ways, Duel is a perfect little movie. It's a simple premise played to its most fearsome and yet logical conclusion. Its small screen origins help keep Spielberg focused as a filmmaker. Conventional wisdom would hold that there isn't enough in Duel to sustain a feature-length theatrical film, then and now. Duel's influence can be felt everywhere in the subgenre of "red asphalt" horror pictures, similar but more needlessly complicated movies such as Road Games, The Hitcher, Breakdown and Joy Ride. But on TV, audiences are more primed to accept a story that is in essence a one-man show. We never get to see the driver of the truck, so the audience is literally given no one else to identify with other than Dennis Weaver. For his part, Weaver is great at playing the high-strung ordinary man forced by extraordinary circumstances into action. He isn't really a hero. He certainly doesn't do much that you could consider heroic. All he wants to do is stay alive and he does everything in his power to just lose the damn truck before he realizes he's going to have to take a stand.


Of course, Duel isn't quite perfect. I could do without some of the voiceover work and I think we'd get the everyman nature of Dennis Weaver's character without the guy actually being named Mann. Also, while the unusual score is often effective, there is a reason why Billy Goldenberg is not the musical name that is symbiotically linked to Spielberg. Whatever its faults, Duel remains a feature directorial debut that anyone would be proud of. Watching it today will make you nostalgic for the days when TV-movies were sometimes more than just dramatizations of the latest high-profile murder case.

Duel is clearly the work of the same man who went on to make Jaws but before he hit the big time with that film, Spielberg had a pit stop to make in Texas. The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical film, is probably Spielberg's least-seen film. That's a shame because it's right up there with his best work. Based on a true story, Sugarland Express casts Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, a welfare mother whose son is about to be taken away from her. Lou Jean breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the pre-release facility he's just been transferred to (four months shy of getting out of prison) and the pair embark on a desperate chase to retrieve their child. After they kidnap a State Trooper (Michael Sacks), they attract state-wide publicity and become the subject of a massive chase (led by veteran actor Ben Johnson).

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express spotlights Spielberg's abilities as an observant, humanistic director. He clearly has affection for all of these odd characters and is rooting for each of them. In many ways, The Sugarland Express is more reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson (particularly Bottle Rocket) than any of Spielberg's other work. Goldie Hawn is always an appealing actress but she's particularly good as Lou Jean. She manages to convey both the inherent loopiness of her scheme as well as her complete faith in its ability to work. Atherton is best known as the obnoxious reporter in the first two Die Hard pictures but Sugarland Express shows him in a much different light. He's an ideal match for Hawn. And while the object of the chase is an adorable little baby, Spielberg doesn't succumb to the temptation to overuse the tyke. Sequences with the kid are kept to a minimum, allowing us to really get to know the characters who might actually be able to grow and learn something over a two-day period. Babies are cute and all but in the movies, they're usually little more than props and/or crutches for filmmakers who don't have enough faith in their own material. In this movie at least, Spielberg believes in his story and his ability to tell it.


Universal's duelling DVDs (I'd say no pun intended but that would be a lie) prove that not all Spielberg discs are created equal. Duel has been announced, withdrawn, rescheduled and sitting in a warehouse for lord knows how long now. The wait, for the most part, has been worth it. Presented in its original TV-friendly full-frame aspect ratio, Duel looks surprisingly good. Not only have I seen TV product of more recent vintage that has looked worse than this, I've seen Spielberg movies that don't reach this level. This is just about as good as you'll see any movie from 1971 ever look on DVD. Universal has sweetened the soundtrack, presenting not only the original mono version but also 5.1 surround tracks in both Dolby Digital and DTS. Purists will want to stick with the original but the surround tracks are nicely done. The surround effects aren't overwhelming and the low-frequency rumbles of the truck are well captured on both of these tracks. The Sugarland Express, on the other hand, looks fine although it doesn't appear to have gone through quite the same level of restoration as Duel. Still, it's an above average transfer (presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen) that is leagues better than the washed-out old VHS versions I've seen. The only soundtrack option is the original mono and it could have used some tweaks. A lot of the dialogue in this movie is delivered over police radios and bull horns and some of it becomes hard to make out. It isn't bad and I've certainly heard worse but it could use some improving.

In terms of bonus material, Duel is the clear winner. Laurent Bouzreau contributes a half-hour Conversation with Steven Spielberg on the making of the film as well as a nine-minute featurette in which Spielberg discusses the rest of his TV work. These are both very interesting and I admire Spielberg for devoting the time to looking back on what many would consider a footnote to his career. The disc also gives some face-time to author Richard Matheson, a fine addition spotlighting this terrific writer. Duel on DVD also gives us a nice, good-sized gallery of photos and international posters, the international trailer, some production notes and the customary cast and filmmaker bios. You'll realize just how long this disc has been delayed in the bios, as Richard Matheson's filmography credits him for the never-realized 2001 update of his The Incredible Shrinking Man. Oops. On the other hand, Universal shows no love for The Sugarland Express by giving it nothing more than a trailer. I'm sure I can't be the only one who would have liked to see a documentary interviewing Spielberg, Goldie Hawn, William Atherton and the rest of the cast and crew involved in this movie.

Rewatching Duel and The Sugarland Express reminds us of just how far Steven Spielberg has come, for better and worse. One of the reasons I have been and will continue to be so critical of his work is because we've seen what he's capable of. At one point, Spielberg was my favorite filmmaker. But as he's started to deal with bigger budgets and bigger issues and themes, he's gone downhill in my estimation. At his best, there is no one better than Spielberg at capturing truly ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Better even than Hitchcock, I would argue, because Spielberg's situations are much more unusual than those Hitchcock plunged Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant into. Whether it's a killer truck, a giant shark, UFOs or a single lost alien, Spielberg can make the unbelievable believable. But today's Spielberg seems to get overwhelmed by the size and scope of his projects and reduces the details, the individual human element of his stories, to easy, often maudlin cliches. Even The Terminal, which should have marked a return to small-scale Spielberg, became more about the enormous airport set than about Tom Hanks. So while everyone else is salivating for Spielberg to make The War of the Worlds or Indiana Jones IV, I'm hoping that he turns his back on them, at least for a little while, and heads back down to earth. Set a budget cap of no more than $15 million or so (which still seems outrageously high by my standards but would be like making a backyard video by Spielberg's scale) and make another Sugarland Express. Nobody's questioning that Steven Spielberg is a director of uncommon technical skill. He could pick up virtually any script and make a proficient film. I'd like to see him reign that in and remind us of his skill with people. Now that would be a trip worth taking.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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